Philadelphia Bulletin's reprieve: hope for evening dailies

"The Bulletin is hanging in there and staying with it. . . . You just can't keep a good newspaper down." So says Phillies baseball star Pete Rose in a new ad campaign for the Philadelphia Bulletin, which has a new lease on life thanks to some last-minute union-management "team spirit."

Eight unions voted late Aug. 16 to accept a five-year contract containing $5 million in wage cutbacks and other contract concessions, thus averting a planned shutdown this week.

But most close media observers say the future is still far from bright for "The Gray Old Lady of Market Street," long one of America's leading afternoon dailies.

On the other hand, news of the Bulletin's reprieve, and more important, of the way in which it was worked out, has given some of these observers new hope that the trend that has seen 316 afternoon paper fold since 1970 may begin to be stemmed.

The final edition of the Washington Star rolled off the presses Aug. 7 leaving the nation's capital with only one major daily newspaper. And here in New York, the Daily News announced Aug. 14 that it would cease publication Aug. 28 of its year-old afternoon edition, leaving the nation's biggest city with only one general circulation afternoon paper, the New York Post.

The two-edged sword of dwindling circulation and increasing deficits proved to be too much for Time Inc., which owned the Star -- despite pay cuts employees had earlier agreed to, together with an infusion of new talent and ideas. And Daily News publisher Robert M. Hunt told reporters Aug. 14 that even with the closing of that paper's "Tonight" afternoon edition, and the layoffs of some 320 employees, America's largest general circulation daily was still expected to lose a whopping $11 million this year.

"We are determined to bring costs into line," Mr. Hunt said. "We have no toher choice." Tonight was launched on Aug. 19 of last year in the hope it would provide a "quality" afternoon alternative to Australian publisher Ruper Murdoch's sensational New York Post, which reportedly is losing millions of dollars a year as well. While Mr. Hunt readily admitted the News's Tonight edition -- which accounts for only 70,000 papers a day compared to the News's morning circulation of 1.3 million -- was bad marketing judgment, he also blamed television for siphoning off would-be evening readers, a sentiment echoed by afternoon dailies across the the land.

With the 134-year-old Bulletin continuing to publish, Philadelphia retains four general circulation dailies. But how long the Bulletin can last without a dramatic reversal of its circulation decline is an open question. It had net losses of $13.4 million last year and $10.3 million for the first six months of this year. Carolyn Lewis, Associate Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, is somewhat ambivalent about the Bulletin reprieve. On the one hand , she says she will "take off her hat" to the unique five-year pact the unions agreed to, "if it works." On the other, she is deeply concerned that management and non-union employees, such as the Bulletin's reporting staff, were not subject to the same sort of concessions the unions were.

"The price [of the new Bulletin contract] is too high in terms of employee rights," the Columbia dean continues, addding that nonunion employees are going to have to make concessions, too, for the paper to survive for any length of time.

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